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Before ISIS: A history of beheadings to terrify, punish

November 16, 2014 at 11:00 AM EDT
ISIS' release of yet another videotape showing the beheading of a western hostage has once again drawn international condemnation and refocused attention on the very practice. In fact, beheadings date back to ancient times, and today, they are hardly limited to the violence waged by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. NewsHour's Ivette Feliciano reports.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally broadcast on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014.

IVETTE FELICIANO: In rapid succession, ISIS’ recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines shocked and outraged the public, and prompted an American military response.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

IVETTE FELICIANO: And now another British aid worker, Alan Henning, has suffered the same fate ….. a story that prompted another round of intense coverage.

RASHID KHALIDI: I think that, you know, what bleeds, leads. And if it’s dramatic and if it’s violent it’ll be shown again and again.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Modern Arab studies at Columbia University, believes the media’s focus on the brutality of the recent beheadings is exactly what ISIS was hoping for.

RASHID KHALIDI: Showing the picture again and again creates panic. They want intervention. They want boots on the ground. They want the United States to be directly involved in fighting them.

Because that makes them out to be the leading group in the Islamic world that’s resisting– western imperialism as they see it. So we’re at– the reaction that they’re getting on Washington is precisely in my view what they want.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Despite the widespread coverage of the four recent ISIS beheadings, Dr. Dawn Perlmutter, an author and scholar who for years has studied ritualistic crimes and religious terrorism, says video-taped beheadings are nothing new, and that these recent events are actually just the tip of the iceberg.

IVETTE FELICIANO: She told us just yesterday it would be safe to say there have been at least 2 dozen beheadings around the world since the start of September …. Among them, four people killed by Mexican drug cartels; 4 by an extremist group in the Sinai Peninsula and another person beheaded by Boko Haram militants who posted their own video just this past Friday. Few, if any, of those incidents even made the news in this country.

DAWN PERLMUTTER: There’s hundreds of them. Hundreds of videos of– easily accessible online for anyone to view. I get alerts on at least four or five beheadings a day– in– in different parts of the world.

IVETTE FELICIANO: She says the beheadings that have occurred after ISIS fighters overran villages in northern and western Iraq and in Syria, have taken violence to a level that even Al-Qaeda has chosen to distance itself from.

DAWN PERLMUTTER: The one consistency in all of the formal beheadings of– of the different Al-Qaeda-linked groups has been that they have never– formally beheaded a woman. What differs with ISIS is that they are beheading women and children and sticking their heads on pikes.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Why is the way you choose to kill someone, especially publicly, so important? Why beheadings of all the ways?

DAWN PERLMUTTER: Beheading is the ultimate sign that you’re in power. It is so– I think just organic—primally of– offensive and frightening that it’s effective.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Perlmutter believes advances in cellphone technology have led to what she calls a “beheading epidemic” over the last 10 years. Hundreds of videos have been uploaded to the web by groups such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and those drug cartels in Mexico.

DAWN PERLMUTTER: ISIS has– taken that technology further because now, we have Twitter. We have Instagram. It’s sort of this unbelievable new phenomenon of primal warfare combined with modern technology.

IVETTE FELICIANO: In fact beheadings in the form of punishment for crimes goes back centuries. It was common in the Greek and Roman empires. Henry the VIII had both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard beheaded, and the French guillotine remained France’s standard method of judicial execution until 1981. Even today, beheading as a form of punishment is still allowed in several countries including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran. Yet Saudi Arabia is the only country that actually continues to behead offenders. There were reportedly 80 public executions there last year – most of them beheadings.

ADAM COOGLE: As far as countries like, you know, western countries, including the United States, who have expressed their horror over the executions by the Islamic State Group in Iraq and Syria, we haven’t seen the same horror over just regular beheadings that take place in Saudi Arabia, several a month on average.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Adam Coogle is the Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Jordan We spoke to him via skype a few days ago.

ADAM COOGLE: When you talk to Saudi officials about this they will usually tell you that their use of public beheadings is rooted in Islamic law and Islamic tradition.

ADAM COOGLE: If Saudi Arabia were to try to reform their practices on capital punishment they would face a considerable resistance and they would be accused by the core constituency of you know basically going back on their Islamic roots.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Some analysts say Muslim extremist groups like ISIS choose the act of beheading because they’re also aligning themselves with what they think is an authentic Islam, pointing to Qu’ranic passages they believe condone the act.

DAWN PERLMUTTER: That’s why they have to always have this reading of offenses, identifying– having the person– confess, having the person– in front of them, kneeling. It is an execution ritual.

RASHID KHALIDI: Therefore when you meet the unbelievers…presumably in a battle…smite at their necks.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Yet Islamic scholars, like Professor Khalidi, dispute that the Qu’ran offers any justification for beheading. He cites the lines coming immediately after one of the two used to justify beheadings.

RASHID KHALIDI: At length when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind the captives firmly. Therefore is the time for either generosity or ransom…

I’ve just read Sura 47 verse 4. If you cut off their heads you’re not going to bind them, and you’re not binding them to cut off their heads you’re binding them to either be generous to them, release them, or hold them for ransom.

So there is nothing about cutting off their heads in this passage. The people who are doing this act claiming this as justification for this practice. It is not. And it just shows that they know nothing about Islam and they don’t know how to read this properly.